KORCZOWA, Poland (AP) -- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday visited a welcome center set up by Polish authorities in what once was a shopping mall in Korczowa, close to the border with Ukraine, where roughly 3,000 refugees are taking shelter after the Russian invasion of their homeland.
America's top diplomat heard harrowing tales from mothers and their children who described long and perilous journeys -- and the shock of the sudden disruption and the fear for their lives -- after fleeing the devastation of the war.
"Near our home we heard bombs," said Venera Ahmadi, 12, who said she came with her brother and sister, six dogs and seven cats from Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, more than 600 kilometers (372 miles) away. "We walked to the border, I don't know how many hours. We crossed the border on foot."
Her 16-year-old sister, Jasmine, said: "I was scared I would die."
Natalia Kadygrob, 48, reached the center with her four adopted children from Kropyvnytskyi, almost 800 kilometers (about 500 miles) by bus on their way to her brother's home in Germany. Her husband stayed behind.
"There they bombed planes at the airport," she said. "Of course we were afraid."
Tatyana, 58, who wouldn't give her last name, came with her daughter, Anna, 37, and her 6- and 1-year-old daughters, Katya and Kira, from Kharkiv, about 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) away. "They were shooting on the street," Tatyana said. Anna said her home had been destroyed by a shell or a rocket.
She was in the basement with her daughters when the explosion happened. "They should be in school," Anna said. "They are children, they don't understand."
After his stop at the welcome center, Blinken visited the Korczowa border crossing where Polish authorities escorted small groups of refugees -- about 20 at a time -- across the frontier from the Ukrainian town of Krakovets as sporadic snow flakes fell from a gray sky.
Groups mainly of women, children and elderly men -- grimly rolling their possessions in luggage and carrying infants and the occasional family pet -- made their way into makeshift processing centers set up in tents on Polish territory.
Blinken earlier was in the city of Rzeszow for talks with top Polish officials before heading to the border and a frontier post. He met Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau a day after attending a NATO foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels. The military alliance pledged to step up support for eastern flank members such as Poland to counter the Russian invasion.
Although NATO has ruled out establishing a no-fly zone over non-member Ukraine, it has significantly boosted both military and humanitarian assistance. Rzeszow is about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the Ukraine border and its airport has become a hub for flights carrying such aid.
Blinken said his visit to Poland was coming at "one of the most urgent moments in the long history between our two countries" and said recent deployments of U.S. soldiers to the country would continue.
Rau said Poland had already taken in more than 700,000 refugees from Ukraine and that he expected hundreds of thousands more in the coming weeks unless Russia backs down.
"Poland will never recognize territorial changes brought about by unprovoked, unlawful aggression," he said, adding that his country will demand that alleged Russian war crimes committed in Ukraine will be prosecuted.
Following his meeting with Blinken, Morawiecki said they had agreed on the need to further strengthen NATO's eastern flank and strengthen Europe's security architecture. Poland is seeking more U.S. forces on its territory, where there are currently more than 10,000 American troops.
The two men also discussed stepping up sanctions and freezes of assets on Russia, which Morawiecki said should be "crushing" for Russia's economy. No Russian banks should be exempted from the exclusions from the SWIFT system, he said. Currently, all but the largest Russian banks have been kicked off the financial messaging service.